Washington State Wonder – The Ape Cave Lava Tube

Ape Cave
A skylight in The Ape Cave opens to the surface.

I’m just miles away from one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in modern history.

Mount Saint Helens. 1981. A blast that re-shaped the landscape in Washington.

Thirty years later -- I’m crawling through a two-mile-long lava tube on its lower slopes. The Ape Cave, named for the Boy Scouts who explored it. Since then, hiking the Ape Cave has become one of the best reasons to visit Cougar, Washington. Some parts are epic in scope, with smooth, uniform walls – so perfectly formed and regular that it’s hard to believe that hardening lava and gravity were the only forces at work.

Ape Cave
A lava formation in The Ape Cave. No, it doesn't look phallic. Why do you ask?

Other times, Sarah and I are on our bellies slithering through tight passages – or gingerly stepping over tall piles of volcanic rubble.

Go the Right Way

We are traveling the wrong direction, by the way. Most people start at the main cave entrance near the parking lot. They head upslope, emerging through a huge skylight. We did the opposite, taking the trail through the forest, crossing a snowfield (yes, even in late May), descending into the skylight.

ape cave
It's not the dark I'm afraid of - it's the stuff in it that I can't see!

Heading down, we discovered, is actually harder. There are a few steep chutes that would actually be easier to climb then descend. My size is an asset here, allowing me to stretch to footholds that are harder for Sarah to reach.

But with our Petzl headlamps illuminating the cave, we move along – swiftly, even. We meet a few groups headed the opposite direction. One group raised our hackles a bit -- someone in the party was smoking – an annoying faux pas. A French family lamented how long they’d been underground, but trudged on.

Things to Wear and Bring

And further we went. The cave, by the way, was cool. I wore a heavy pair of hiking pants, a base layer, a First Ascent Serrano jacket and a Marmot rain jacket. Condensation was falling from the cave ceiling during the entire two-hour trip from top to bottom, so the rain jacket was perfect.

ape cave
This is where you should exit the cave - not enter like us!

The headlamps I mentioned – indispensable. But bring other light sources and batteries, too. You won’t need gloves, despite what some people might tell you. A bottle or two of water is a good idea. If you have a small tripod, bring it for some long-exposure photos.

Finishing Up

By the time we finished, the rain was falling heavier topside. We tried to drive around for a better (that is to say any) view of Mt. Saint Helens. But it was thoroughly socked in by fog. We wound up having an excellent pizza at the Kelso Theater Pub. If you’re looking something to munch on in Kelso, you can also catch a movie while satisfying your hunger. The Theater Pub also has a nice selection of local microbrews.

ape cave 5
This is the ladder that starts your journey.

The Ape Cave isn’t a hard journey – it’s not technical or as tight a fit as other caves I’ve visited. But it’s fun, and a really cool example of volcanism at work. It’s length can make it a touch monotonous, especially if you’re hungry. But I enjoyed it, and I would recommend to anyone who’s OK being separated from the sky for a few hours.

ape cave trail
Me near a field of volcanic rubble.
ape cave slug
A slug I nearly squished accidentally. Isn't it cool?!

ape cave trail
The forest near the Ape Cave are beautiful.

Gear Test: Giro Xen Gloves

24 Hours in the Old Pueblo Justin Schmid
Notice the always-reliable Fox gloves.

I love Giro bike helmets. Even its less-expensive models are beyond reproach.

This track record had me pretty excited about trying out its Giro Xen gloves. I picked some up at South Mountain Cycles in Ahwatukee, Ariz., in December of 2009. Since then, I’ve been able to test two pairs and have some strong opinions about them.

They had a lot to offer: full fingers (nice for cooler temperatures), lack of bulk, nice fit. And they looked cool with a swirly gray-and-black urban camouflage pattern. The hook-and-loop fasteners were a bit odd, wrapping counterclockwise around the wrist. But that seemed to be the only major deviation from convention. They were reasonably priced at $30.

Giro Xen
It didn't take long to start poking holes in the Xen.

Unfortunately, they’re also the flimsiest gloves I’ve ever owned. Within four months, stitching on the palm of the right glove started coming unraveled. I couldn’t find my receipt, but Giro was accommodating enough to send a new pair. They arrived for the hot summer riding. I split my time between the Xen gloves and an old pair of Fox half-finger gloves.

The palm started unraveling, too.

Despite a fairly light workout, the newer pair developed problems. By December, the left glove’s index finger developed a pinhole. By December, my finger was poking all the way through.

My Fox gloves, on the other hand, are so old that I can’t even remember buying them. Age and heavy use have made them crusty and skanky – even after a thorough tumble in the wash machine. But they are still in one piece.

That makes my next glove purchase a no-brainer: I’ll get another pair of Fox gloves. Unfortunately, Giro’s gloves are nowhere near a match for the excellence of its helmets.

The Xen gloves DO look cool, though.

Review: Inn at Northrup Station in Portland, Oregon

The Inn at Northrup Station
Relaxing in a room at The Inn at Northrup Station

My three nights at the Inn at Northrup Station in Portland, Oregon, took me back to New Zealand. The Kiwis have no shortage of quirky hotels with all the comforts of home. Here in the U.S., this is just a rarity.

What makes it stand apart from other hotels in Portland? And in the country, for that matter?

First, there’s an in-room kitchen. A stove, four burners, a full-sized refrigerator. Now, Portland has all the restaurants you could ever want. So why bother with a kitchen? Because of the abundant farmer’s markets. Sarah and I went to a Saturday market -- scored some morel mushrooms, fresh pasta, crab, baby bok choy. We turned it into an awesome feast.

The Inn at Northrup Station
Even the outside looks pretty slick.

The neighborhood also stands out. It’s right on the Portland streetcar line, which connects to the MAX lightrail (to the airport and many other points). You’re walking-distance from Jeld-Wen Field (home of the Portland Timbers MSL team), the Pearl District, an uncountable number of shops and restaurants. And yes, brewpubs.

The Inn at Northrup Station
Baby bok choy cooked up just right.

And give Northrup Station style points. No bland beige or institutional furniture. Purples, yellows, reds -- I know plenty of people who’d like their house to look like a room at Northrup Station. It oozes "hip," but not "hipster."

The service is far more personal and friendly than average. The staff members are friendly, ready to print your boarding passes, give you free tickets for the street car or directions to just about any cool spot. You also get a free if unspectacular breakfast. Didn’t bring a computer? Just slide behind one of the Macs.

Finally, the price is reasonable. Less than $150 a night in the beginning of summer – with all the fees and taxes. Just try equaling that in Seattle or Vancouver.

Inn at Northrup Station
A hotel room with a kitchen - a must if you want to try local flavors (like morel mushrooms) cooked your way.

When I return to Portland, I’ll stay here again. I’ll try scoring a room on the third (top) floor -- some people have heavy footsteps.

But if all I get is a second-floor room, I still won’t complain. Not with all the other factors adding up to a great and unusual hotel.

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Portland Summer Fun: Tree to Tree Adventures

Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course
Ready for aerial action

I just have to jump. And grab a rope. Then swing over to a tree stump.

Just one thing: I’m at least 40 feet above the forest floor. (see video at bottom)

This is the Black Diamond section of Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course in Gaston, Oregon … Day 4 of my visit to Portland, and I’ve found my favorite of the local attractions. It’s a maze of aerial rope obstacles and zip lines. Some are just a foot or two off the ground. But if you’ve got the grapes, go big!

Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course
Sarah works it hard and shows us how it's done.

Easy to say before I was up here sweating out this rope-swinging thing. It’s physically easy. And the lobster claws connected to my climbing harness are connected just so. The staff drilled safety into us. I paid rapt attention.

Still I hesitate. The brain -- it doesn’t want to do this. But I finally grab a hold and swing.

Thump. Both boots touch the stump. One left. Lunge. Swing. Thump. Onto the next.

Few of the next obstacles give me much trouble.

Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course
The beginning of the double-black section.

The last one is a monster: several beams hanging from a taut overhead wire. They sway enthusiastically with each step. It’s a wild ride. I’m burning a ton of energy, using every muscle in my arms. When I finish, I’m too blown out to tackle the three Double Black Diamond obstacles.

My wife, though … Sarah tackles the obstacle that schooled me. She’s like a cat. She heads to the Double Black section. It’s a studious and methodical effort, but graceful enough. And efficient. She heads to the second obstacle. She is almost through it -- and then she’s swinging from her safety cables.

Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course
A ground-up look at the obstacles at Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Course

There’s no reason to hang her head – I’m impressed. A tidy demonstration of efficiency, breath control and focus.

By the time she takes the final zip line to terra firma, we’ve decided: Tree to Tree Aerial Adventures is one of our favorite places ever – right up there with the Agrodome in Rotorua, New Zealand. And that’s some serious praise.